The topic of regional growth in the UK is a topical one, and Whitecap is fielding an increasing number of enquiries from organisations seeking to explore the benefits that regional growth strategies can offer. In this blog Director Julian Wells shares some thoughts and observations on the topic.

Whitecap was pleased to contribute to a recently published ‘Encouraging Regional Growth’ paper by New City Initiative on the opportunities for decentralising fund management in the UK and encouraging regional growth. The paper, written by Charles Gubert, argues the UK has an opportunity to create a new bespoke fund structure to provide investment opportunities to UK and international investors. This would likely be a retail investment fund, rather than a private equity or pension fund, and it could be administered outside London which would help create jobs and economic value in the regions and for the UK overall.

Whether such an initiative comes to pass or not, the arguments outlined in the paper are well aligned with an ever-increasing focus on the value the regions can provide to London-based businesses, or indeed international organisations looking to enter the UK market. As the paper says:

“It could make far more economic sense for start-ups or existing managers to set up offices outside of London, where cost overheads and office rents are markedly lower. In fact, this trend is already happening.”

This is a theme that we are seeing become increasingly prominent in our client conversations at Whitecap, where we operate as a regionally based consultancy with six regional offices, and no London presence. We are an active contributor in the regional ecosystems in each of our office locations: Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Bristol, and we see first-hand the capability and desire of these regions to welcome and support businesses who choose to base themselves there.

Devolution of policies and powers to the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are well established. Devolution to English regions, predominately via mayoral Combined and other Authorities, is still evolving in many areas; although it is more established in London and Manchester. This is a major structural transformation and one that is set to continue at a pace.

The regional cities where we have offices all have clear growth ambitions linked to local industrial strategies and they aim to build modern and sustainable economies. We enjoy strong relationships with the local councils, Combined Authorities and LEPs, and we are engaged with the many of universities in the regions. In addition, we work with regionally based businesses across multiple sectors who not only have ambitions to grow but are quick to champion the benefits of choosing to be based outside London.

“A number of financial services firms are encouraging people living in London who are from regional cities to move back to their home towns and work in subsidiary offices. The quality of life and buying power in regional cities is much greater than in London, and that is also proving to be a major pull.”

Chris Sier, HM Treasury FinTech Envoy & Chairman, FinTech North (quoted in NCI paper)

One thing to highlight at this point is that there is an increasingly common mindset in regional cities that this is not about competing with London, but about complementing the capital as part of a stronger national economy. There are also signs, albeit at an earlier stage, of an acceptance that collaboration is key not just for corporates and startups but can also benefit regional ecosystems.

In light of the Covid-19 crisis, the opportunity for the regional economy to prosper seems stronger than ever, with remote working set to become an increasingly favoured practice due to a combination of health measures and cost management by businesses. There are other influences too, not least that the millennial generation values quality of jobs and a good work-life balance, which for many is difficult to achieve in London.

“It is possible that the ’new’ working practices emerging from the Covid-19 crisis will help break down geographical boundaries, which may provide a helpful boost to the regional economy. If video conferencing, virtual meetings and digital events become more prominent, this could encourage more London-based organisations to consider remote working and / or a regional office presence as they seek to identify potential sources of efficiency and effectiveness in their operating models.”

Julian Wells, Director, Whitecap Consulting (quoted in NCI paper)

Remote working may be set to be more commonplace, but for many organisations it cannot replace traditional office-based working. This could also open up more opportunity for the regions, as highlighted by Chris Sier in the NCI paper:

“Remote working from home is causing connectivity and broadband problems, and I would imagine companies will start setting up regional hub offices whereby people can access superior levels of internet service.”

Over the last 2 years we have studied regional FinTech ecosystems across the UK, publishing detailed findings and reports about each region. During this time a wider, cross-regional FinTech ecosystem has formed across the UK, overseen by the FinTech National Network, and including Innovate Finance, FinTech North, FinTech West, FinTech Scotland, FinTech Wales and FinTech Northern Ireland.

FinTech is just one example of an innovative sector that is thriving across multiple regions. Other emerging regional ecosystems we have observed and been involved in include HealthTech, BioTech, clean growth, smart cities, and innovation ecosystems. Many of these ecosystems are extremely well established and funded, others are at an earlier stage.

Organisations like CBI, The CityUK, Tech Nation, Nesta, DIT and Innovate UK amongst those who are helping firms large and small to develop across the UK, and within specific regions there are multiple support organisations and initiatives to help businesses to grow, including regional funding and grants. Via our client work at Whitecap we hear first-hand what the benefits can be: Large established firms with regional bases report that they can access lower operating costs, experience more loyalty from employees, and can make a real difference to the communities they operate in; while startups tell us they have more opportunity to make a name for themselves in regional cities, rather than being one of many in London.

Our three key takeaways on this topic are:

  1. The regional economy has a lot to offer organisations seeking access to talent and resources, something which is being increasingly recognised.
  2. Specialist ecosystems are developing around specific sectors as regional clusters of expertise develop.
  3. Covid-19 may increase the attractiveness of, and further fuel, regional devolution across the UK.

There are strong political, social, economic and commercial factors driving an increased focus on the regional agenda. The regions and major cities of the UK have long been capable of driving and sustaining economic growth and prosperity, and now we in a period when they are realising their potential.

If you’d like to discuss this blog post or share your own perspective on the issues covered, please get in touch or comment via our social media channels on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Established in 2012, Whitecap Consulting is a regional strategy consultancy headquartered in Leeds, with offices in Manchester, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle. We typically work with boards, executives and investors of predominantly mid-sized organisations with a turnover of c£10m-£300m, helping clients analyse, develop and implement growth strategies. Also, we work with clients across a range of sectors including Financial Services, Technology, FinTech, Outsourcing, Consumer and Retail, Property, Healthcare, Higher Education, Manufacturing and Professional Services, including Corporate Finance and PE.